A little more than two years after state Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol, floated the idea of government assistance to troubled newspapers in the state, how have Connecticut’s print and digital news media fared? Are they continuing to perform their cherished roles as watchdogs of the public trust? The answer is they’ve done reasonably well, considering the still-troubled economy, a downturn in print advertising sales and the resulting loss of journalistic resources.
The state’s flagship newspaper, The Hartford Courant, continues to suffer for the sins of its bankrupt corporate parent, Tribune Company. The paper is reportedly profitable but has still been forced to shed hundreds of workers over the last few years, while reducing its number of news pages in proportion to advertising losses.
When Nicastro proposed to help the state’s newspapers through rough times, two of them, the Bristol Press and the New Britain Herald, were slated to shut down, the victim of downsizing by the then-struggling Journal Register Company of Pennsylvania. Those papers were bought at the eleventh hour by a Long Island news executive, Michael Schroeder, who has brought additional efficiency, technology and modernization to those organizations.
Meanwhile, since selling those two papers to Schroeder, Journal Register, which emerged successfully from Chapter 11 and still owns the New Haven Register and the Register Citizen of Torrington, turned a remarkable $41 million profit last year. New CEO John Paton, himself a former journalist, promptly announced on his blog that he would give substantial bonuses not just to top executives, but to all employees. Oh, if only Bob Jelenic were alive to hear of such generosity …
Since taking the reigns of the struggling JRC, Paton has emphasized a “digital-first-print-last” business model. The company put a thousand flip cams in the hands of its reporters and made use of free web tools to create online communities that, while far from perfect, have boosted website revenues to compensate for shrinking circulation and declining ad sales for its print editions.
The Register Citizen even attracted national attention last year as it moved its headquarters to much larger digs and opened up a newsroom cafe and community journalism center. And the paper has even opened its daily newsroom meeting to the public, either in-person or streaming live on its website.
As a result, the Register Citizen’s website has an audience six times larger than its daily print circulation of roughly 7,000. Digital ad revenue now accounts for more than 20 percent of the RC’s advertising receipts, a percentage that exceeds industry standards, Paton said at a public meeting of the JRC’s advisory board streamed live on Thursday from Torrington. Most strikingly, the paper turned a modest profit last year after losing money in 2009.
Amid mostly bad news for the news business, another positive development statewide has been the proliferation of online sites that cover state and local government. Patch a national network of hyperlocal news sites, has moved into Connecticut and is doing a commendable job of covering everything from town council meetings to high school football.
Founded in 2005, CTNewsJunkie continues to thrive, feeding its addicted audience a steady and satisfying diet of state government and political coverage. Alas, Susan Bigelow’s CTLocalPolitics.net wasn’t so fortunate, disbanding a little more than a year ago.
Interestingly, the mass exodus from The Courant has benefited other news organizations in the state, especially the start-ups. The non-profit Connecticut Mirror went live a more than a year ago and covers public policy. It was able to attract top-flight talent from the Courant (e.g. political reporter Mark Pazniokas and education writer Robert Frahm), as well as from The Journal Inquirer (Capitol bureau chief Keith Phaneuf).
George Gombossy, the former consumer reporter and columnist for The Courant who was fired in 2009 for refusing to make nice with advertisers, promptly started CTWatchdog.com , a lively extension of his eponymous work as the Courant’s “watchdog” columnist.
There are literally dozens of blogs run by observers and partisans of all stripes including yours truly who comment on state news and link to original reporting. And the CT Capitol Report is a lively aggregator of Connecticut news that looks so much like the Drudge Report that I half expect Matt Drudge has already contacted his copyright lawyers.
So I think we’re actually in pretty good shape, considering the downsizing that has afflicted news organization throughout the state and the nation. Now if we could just get better cell phone coverage here in the Northwest Corner …
Writer’s note: It should be duly noted that Rep. Nicastro has rejected the description of his proposal as a “bailout.” According to the Bristol News, he said he simply wanted any potential buyer of the Bristol and New Britain papers to be aware “of state programs available to any business owner that might lead to tax breaks or low-interest loans to encourage development and preserve jobs.”
Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.